Take stock of stock-tank planters

Squid agave (Agave bracteosa ), silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea ), Manfreda ‘Macho Mocha,’ and Hinckley’s columbine in my first stock-tank planter.

Over at Gardening Gone Wild, they’re talking about container plantings for this month’s Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop. You know what that means here at Digging—cattle troughs!

Regular readers will roll their eyes at this point, remembering how I’ve rhapsodized about the humble stock tank once or twice before. But I can’t help elevating these utilitarian vessels into focal points in my garden. Is it a Texas thing? Is it a nod to my neighborhood’s origin, in the ’40s, as a cattle pasture? Is it tongue-in-cheek? You decide.

But the best thing about them—besides that great silver color and impervious construction—is that they’re big. Summers in Austin are too brutally hot and dry to bother with planting thirsty, dainty annuals in tidy, little pots suitable for a front porch. They’d fry. A bigger container requires less-frequent watering. It also makes a statement and doesn’t get lost in bitty-ness. As my husband is fond of saying, “Go big or go home.”

The trough pictured above is my latest addition. My mother brought it down from Tulsa in the back of her PT Cruiser. She’d once used it as a container pond, and after that it sat in a field for a while. Well weathered, it now provides a focal point at the end of my lawnette. Planted with tough, drought-tolerant Texas natives, this baby won’t need supplemental water more than once a week, maybe two, once it gets established. From left to right: Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips,’ Devil’s shoestring (Nolina lindheimeriana ), spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ), Gomphrena ‘Grapes,’ and ‘Powis Castle’ artemesia.

A close-up of the ‘Grapes’ gomphrena

In this photo, you can see two of my stock-tank planters at once. In the foreground, a shallow cattle trough, drilled with drainage holes and sunken in the dirt, puts a dramatic variegated agave on a pedestal. In the background, the taller trough with the manfreda and the columbine welcomes visitors at the side entrance. (The tall, skinny planter in the far background is a $7 stovepipe planted with an Agave victoria-reginae.)

Stock tanks make great container ponds too. This one holds a dwarf water lily (dormant), a horsetail, and a sedge, plus a couple of goldfish.

As you can see, there are as many shapes and sizes of cattle troughs as there are uses for them in the garden. Just remember to buy a bigger one than you think you’ll need. Go big or go home.

All material © 2006-2008 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

26 Responses

  1. Priscilla says:

    Great containers. I love how the metal contrasts against the natural plants. I would love to make a pond out of one. Beautiful.

    It’s much easier than digging out a hole for a pond. ;-) —Pam

  2. Gail says:


    I am crazy for stock tanks and if I thought I could incorporate them in my garden…they would be here! Friends roll their eyes when I suggest adding them….more of Gail’s clown pants! As always, your garden photos are inspiring. can’t wait to see them in person.


    A sense of humor while gardening is always good. I say go for it, Gail. Maybe you’ll start a trend in Nashville. —Pam

  3. jocelyn says:

    Go big or go home—I love it! And I think that it is truly great advice. Nothing looks more out of place in the great outdoors than the too small, whether it be planting beds, patios, containers or plants.
    Pam, your colorful garden photos have been such a joy for those of us slogging through the “slow brown” of winter’s end. Thank you, thank you!

    Thank you for your kind comments, Jocelyn. I bet you’ll be seeing some green soon. —Pam

  4. laxpat says:

    Thanks again for sharing those pictures. The galvanized finish is lovely and the style of the tanks is elegant. I didn’t manage to find a source for stock tanks before purchasing a galvanized tub (see recent post). The tub is good but I will consider moving up to a tank for the courtyard now that I know where to find them. I think that perhaps using the tanks in the beds of my backyard may be a solution to the difficulty of growing plants in the rock studded soil.

    You may be the first person to call them elegant, Laxpat, but I think I know what you mean. They seem both rustic and minimalistic at the same time. Their minimalist lines are why they work so well in contemporary gardens, in my opinion. But of course I think they’re just dandy in Texas cottage gardens too. Good luck with your tanks. I’m glad you found them, and you’re right—they sure beat digging in rock. —Pam

  5. Nan Ondra says:

    Great post, Pam! I was eyeing up some galvanized tanks at Tractor Supply just yesterday, but unfortunately, fencing supplies for the boys’ new pasture took precedence. Can I ask what kind of planting mix you fill your containers with? And where did you find that great gomphrena?

    I use Lady Bug brand Hill Country Garden Soil mixed with decomposed granite for excellent drainage. Lady Bug bagged soil isn’t cheap, but it’s good stuff. Oh, and I found the gomphrena at Barton Springs Nursery. —Pam

  6. No it is not a Texas thing – I’ve been wanting one for years for a small water garden with a native water lily. I guess I should make a pilgrimage to Farm & Fleet to see what they have. Yours are, as usual, all so wonderful. What’s not to like about a big, silver planter with clean simple lines – it goes with just about anything.

    It sure does. I’m glad you like them too, MMD. —Pam

  7. wiseacre says:

    Ok now I really know you’re gardening fanatic. Anyone who digs a hole in order to set in a stock tank has to be dedicated to their plants.

    It’s hard to believe how far ahead your gardens are. There’s still snow on the ground here.

    I caught sight of the rustic bench in the other photo – I’d be envious if I didn’t have a friend who makes them. (I have been gifted a white cedar beauty)

    I hope everyone gets to enjoy the sun and good company during Spring Fling. I’m off to meet spring by traveling south this week-end and looking forward to temps in the 40s :)

    Lucky you, to have a handy, artistic friend. My cedar (juniper) bench was made by a craftsman here in central Texas, and he supplies Barton Springs Nursery and the Antique Rose Emporium with his designs. He must stay pretty busy because I’ve seen his benches, chairs, and tables in gardens all over town. Though it may not look it, it’s actually comfortable too. Enjoy your own spring fling, Wiseacre. Get warm, if that’s possible in 40-degree weather. —Pam

  8. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Yes your big galvanized tanks have given me ideas. I just can’t wait for warmer weather.

    I hope you get some soon, Lisa. —Pam

  9. Pam,
    I love the containers themselves, not to mention what’s in them. I’ll have to look into them especially for an easy water garden–no digging and when I want to turn it into something else it won’t be a problem.

    That’s true. The only trick is making it level, but that’s true for any water feature, and after that it’s easy as pie. —Pam

  10. Robin says:

    I had already been thinking about your stock containers after getting a Tractor Supply sales paper. I want it for herbs and a few tomato plants. I’m not sure how they would look in my yard, but they are perfect in yours.

    In Indiana? It’d be a natural. Maybe grow some corn around it, eh? —Pam

  11. Lori says:

    That planter’s a STOVEPIPE? That you got for SEVEN BUCKS?!!

    And the hardware store closes in exactly four minutes!

    Home Depot, Lori. The chimney cap aisle, I believe. —Pam

  12. Carol says:

    The trough is definitely your ‘signature planter’. I’ll never see one in quite the same way, knowing how you use them in your garden. It’s a great look.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

    I’ve kind of run with this idea, haven’t I? When my son noticed the latest one recently, he asked incredulously, “Another one?” When the stovepipe when in, no one said a word, so maybe the family’s gotten used to unusual, silver planters. —Pam

  13. Mary Beth says:

    I no longer see a silver stock tank without thinking of you, Pam! And I am noticing them all over my little town these days – I guess everyone is reading “Digging”. I especially love the look of the ones that you have sunk deeply in the ground. They look like they’ve been there for years! After we build our home, I planted white trailing lantana in a left-over terra cotta chimney flue. Last summer, I got busy and didn’t water regularly so I’m now trying to decide where to move that flue and what to plant in her. Thanks for your innovative planters!

    That’s a flattering thought, but I confess that the idea is not my own. I saw them here in Austin years ago and eventually copied the idea for my own garden. —Pam

  14. I like your first stock tanks that looks like bathtubs, I have never see such tanks.They are beautiful.
    The other one we have to, we have dig it down a bit and cover it with stones, like a old well and put a waterlily in it.
    We have it in a cinde of woodland so it is some effect when the lily blooms in white.
    You have very fine garden with all the tanks and decorations between all the plants.
    Now we have winter here in Sweden but it shall be spring temperatures next week, thats nice.
    Best regards Ken

    Ken, your buried tank with a waterlily sounds lovely. I hope you’ll show pictures of it when it blooms. —Pam

  15. Pam, I showed your site to my Mom. She exclaimed “Aren’t those stock tanks?” I nodded, and then she said, “You could do that. Your garden is pretty rustic.” Her excitement lot from a woman who’s been disabled for so long, and who doesn’t garden. Thanks for bringing a smile to her face. I want the pond, I think. Now, where to put it.~~Dee

    Thanks for sharing that with me, Dee. And if you do put in a stock-tank pond, please post all about it. I’d love to see yours when it’s finished. You’ll see the inspiration for my own on the Wildflower Center tour at the Spring Fling. —Pam

  16. Nicole says:

    Our equivalent would be galvanized buckets-but these are sooo expensive now, US$100-$200. And the coppers from the era of the sugar industry are now US$5000 plus! Well, I have been collecting coral rocks that have cavities that can be used for planting. Heavy to lug but free.
    Gomphrena ‘Grapes” is just lovely. My mother always had the old fashioned purple Gomphrena. Apparently the flowers were also used boiled as tea years ago for some ailments-I think some urinary tract ailments.

    The galvanized stock tanks I use cost between $70 and $100, I think. Of course, bigger stock tanks cost more. I guess you have shipping costs built into your higher prices. Using coral rocks as planters sounds perfect for an island garden like yours. Interesting about the herbal properties of gomphrena too. —Pam

  17. Zoe says:

    Loved your photographs, especially the Passion flower, it is so vibrant! Love your use of recycled materials for containers, they were beautifully planted too.

    Thanks, Zoe. I appreciate your comment and just popped over to see your blog. I like your theme of visiting gardens because I enjoy that too. I’ll be back for a longer look soon. —Pam

  18. Amy says:

    Love the stock tank planters! They would fit in so well where I live – rolling grasslands, ranches and lot of cowboys :) I’ve used some half barrels but the stock tanks wouldn’t rot – a definite bonus. Plus, I know just where the feed store is that sells them.

    I just pulled out a rotten half barrel left by the previous owners. Yep, the stock tanks don’t rot. They can rust over time, even with the galvanization. However, that takes a long while, so they’re still a good choice. Thanks for visiting, Amy. —Pam

  19. That photo of the two stock tanks in the front yard is so dramatic. I like the clean lines that the stock tanks provide. When you have an exuberantly planted garden, those clean lines underneath make the difference between good garden design and a mess–something I know theoretically although I rarely practice it myself.

    I like the stock tanks for that reason too. And I found that the more I used them, the more cohesive the look became. Having several stock tanks in my garden makes it look intentional, not a jumble. —Pam

  20. Just came across this article. Here’s another designer that knows how to use stock tanks

    A man after my own heart. Cool photo. Thanks for the link. —Pam

  21. Joy says:

    I ran across your blog after looking for garden pictures in the central Texas area. Your garden is beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing it. I’ve been working on my central Texas garden for about 5 years. Unfortunately, most of the native plants seem to be sun plants, and I have entirely shade (not that I’m going to complain about too much shade!). I do have columbine, Turks Cap, Cast Iron Plants, Coral Honeysuckle, and ferns. Hope some day my garden can look at beautiful as yours. Thanks again. Joy

    Joy, I’m so glad you stopped by and left a comment. Thanks for the kind words about my garden. A mostly native shade garden is a cool retreat on a hot summer day. Have you tried spiderwort, golden groundsel, and heartleaf skullcap for early spring color? The spiderwort and golden groundsel work great under Turk’s cap, which leafs out later. Katie’s dwarf ruellia is a good summer-blooming ground cover, and if you have a little more sun Texas betony is wonderful too. Happy digging! —Pam

  22. Valerie says:

    Your watering tanks are very chic: http://www.dbarchitect.com/project_detail/9/Curran%20House%20.html
    Scroll down to see how ground breaking they are in SF (discovered on the constantgarden blog)

    Austin seems a natural fit for them, even among the chic, modern houses popping up like mushrooms. But I wouldn’t have expected to see them in urban San Francisco. Thanks for the link. —Pam

  23. Taryn says:

    I love, love, love the idea of using stock tanks for planters, especially with the rocky ground that we have at our place. They recently remodeled a Chili’s restaurant in town and they used stock tanks for the planters only their’s are half circles and that’s what I want. Does anyone have any idea where I might find those. I’ve looked online under every description I can think of with no luck. Any suggestions is greatly appreciated. And I love your pictures. Beautiful!!

    Hi, Taryn. Thanks for your kind comment. Stock tanks are fun and easy to use in the garden. I haven’t seen the half-circle stock tanks though. You might try asking the manager at Chili’s where they got them. —Pam

  24. […] American-Statesman, welcome! Regular readers of Digging know that I’m a huge fan of using stock tanks in the garden, and I can never resist the chance to show a few more pics of the shiny troughs in my own little […]

  25. Linda says:

    I was just discussing the idea of livestock tanks for a raised vegetable garden this morning with my husband. Then I see this site! Wonderful ideas! My question is: Does one need to line the galvanized tank with anything, such as a plastic liner, before planting vegetables? Thank You!

    I’m not aware of any need to line it with plastic, Linda. I do recommend cleaning out your tank with water before planting it up. —Pam

  26. baruch says:

    trying to locate where to purchase stock in the Bay Area California. I live in San Francisco. Any recommendations. Thanks.